Congestion pricing has been a popular idea to discuss ever since London began to charge different rates in the city center to drive a car. Initially, this seemed like a particularly interesting idea, and the thought that drivers would pick up the cost (both direct and indirect) of a city full of cars, looked to make a lot of sense.
But thinking through the real issues a bit further reveals a more concerning outlook on congestion pricing, who it affects, and its overall outcomes.
Transit-oriented cities love to brag about the percentage of workers that take transit to work, rather than drive. In fact, here in Cambridge, we love to brag about how fewer than 50% of Cantabrigians commute by car. While this statistic is already a bit skewed as 1/3 of our population is made up of students, the true key word to notice in there is commute. You’ll frequently see US cities talking about how many people commute via car vs. transit vs. bike.
While this is absolutely a great thing, what’s really important isn’t just how many people don’t want to hassle with traffic en route to work, but how many people feel that they can access the things they need in daily life via means other than car ownership. For example, of the non-student population of Cambridge, there are about 1.4 cars per household. When comparing to the average cars per household in European cities, inner cities have ~ 0.5 cars per household, while exurbs have just shy of 1.4. So one of the best cities in the US for commuting by means other than car, still comes in with over 3 times the car ownership of a European city, tying with the exurbs.
This isn’t to say that Cambridge should be compared to inner London or Amsterdam, but it’s important to look at the differences. One of the key distinctions is precisely how accessible basic needs are. It may seem reasonable to walk 15 minutes to catch a train which takes 20 minutes to get to work, when you’re doing it as part of a commute. But if you have to walk 15 minutes to catch a train every time you want to pick up chips and salsa for a gathering of friends, it’s a very different story.